On The Debt Ceiling Deal, Blaming Obama, And Liberal Credibility (And Obama’s Lack Of It)

Matthew Dickenson writes:

In short, this is probably the best deal Obama was going to negotiate. It’s not like he didn’t try to get revenue increases on the table – in fact, he rejected the original Boehner deal because it didn’t have enough revenues. In the end, Obama didn’t have the political capital to leverage anything else from the House Republicans. (Amazingly, there is a cadre of hard-core activists including Democratic legislators who are, tonight, still urging him to invoke the 14th amendment!) I’m not saying Obama handled this flawlessly, although I’m hard pressed to point out obvious specific errors. But the result was always likely to come out pretty much where it did, when it did. I said as much, weeks ago.

I’ll be on tomorrow. Meanwhile, maybe some of you can tell me why so many very smart people have, since the day Obama was inaugurated, deluded themselves into thinking that this admittedly very smart man, albeit one with limited political experience at the national level, was somehow going to step into office and proceed to rewrite the political laws that have governed presidential politics for the last two centuries?

Matthew doesn’t link to any people still claiming that Obama would radically transform how DC operates, probably because they don’t exist, and haven’t existed since the euphoria of winning the 2008 election. But putting aside Matthew’s condescending hyperbole, it’s true that progressives have been harshly critical of the President, including over this deal. Are progressives right? Could Obama have done better if he either had better priorities or were a better negotiator?

Regarding the debt ceiling negotiations, I tend to agree with Greg Sargent: Although I wish the President and other Democrats had taken a harder negotiating stance over the last few months, I’m not convinced it would have made any difference. The Republicans had a very credible threat that they’d destroy the economy if they didn’t get enormous concessions. Democrats, rightly, were unwilling to see that happen. Given the enormous disparity in negotiating leverage, it was inevitable that Republicans would win big.

But the Democrats should never have allowed themselves to be put in such a losing negotiating position.

Democrats and the President could have insisted on the debt ceiling being raised in return for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, as part of the tax cut negotiations at the end of 2010. Obama was asked about that at the time, and essentially said that he didn’t believe that Republicans, once in power, would hold the economy hostage in exchange for short-term policy change. (“…nobody, Democrat or Republican, is willing to see the full faith and credit of the United States government collapse… Once John Boehner is sworn in as Speaker, then he’s going to have responsibilities to govern. You can’t just stand on the sidelines and be a bomb thrower.”) That was not a smart thing for Obama to say.

Obama defender Mistermix writes:

I’ll agree that in hindsight it might have been smart for Obama to bundle a debt ceiling increase with the tax cut capitulation last December.

It’s not “hindsight”; in 2010, progressives were saying that Democrats needed to connect the tax cuts for the rich Republicans wanted with raising the debt ceiling, or exactly this would happen. Time has shown that progressives were correct.

Mistermix continues:

But I’d be careful about adopting that position, because it’s been clear from the start that the House Republicans were itching for an opportunity to hold a hostage. The debt ceiling increase was just the first convenient opportunity for a hold up. If it hadn’t been the debt ceiling, the budget would have become the next non-crisis crisis.

This is deeply wrong, because not all hostages are equal. Most economists believe that not raising the debt ceiling would have a disastrous effect on the economy, both in the short and long terms. Democrats simply could not have allowed that to happen, which means that they had no credible “we’re walking away from the table” threat. Taking a deal — no matter how bad — was always a better outcome for Democrats than allowing the GOP to destroy the US economy. Republicans knew that.

If the Republicans had to pick some other hostage — the annual budget, say — Democrats would have been in a better negotiating position, because they could credibly say that there are worse outcomes than a temporary government shutdown.

Obama made a ridiculous error by not attempting to deal with the debt ceiling in 2010; the result of his error is a bad deal that will lead to greater suffering and unemployment among poor Americans. He deserves a great deal of criticism for that.

* * *

Many progressives criticize Obama for not publicly embracing “The constitutional option,” or the 14th Amendment option, as a negotiating tactic. I think this criticism of Obama is mistaken. The Constitutional Option might have been the best of the bad options if no deal had been reached, but it wasn’t a useful negotiating tool.1 As David Frum pointed out, Obama embracing the constitutional option could have made the House GOP even more extreme, by reassuring them that “they can be as intransigent as they want at no ultimate cost to themselves, because the president will invent a solution to the crisis they caused.”

* * *

Finally, there’s the matter of liberal credibility. Obama had a lot of it when elected, but has for the most part lost it since then. Republicans in Congress have effectively blocked progressive laws since the 2008 (other than the Affordable Care Act, potentially the biggest progressive victory of my lifetime). But how you lose matters, and Obama has persistently lost badly.

By losing well, I mean losing in a way that builds a coalition, demonstrates to your allies that you are serious, takes a pound of flesh from your opponents and leaves them with the blame, and convinces those on the fence that it is an important issue for which you have the answers. Lose for the long run; lose in a way that leaves liberal institutions and infrastructure stronger, able to be deployed again at a later date.

Let’s take an example of a lose: immigration. [….]

Deporting almost 800,000 illegal immigrants might antagonize some Democrats and Latino voters, Obama’s skeptical supporters said the president told them, but stepped-up enforcement was the only way to buy credibility with Republicans and generate bipartisan support for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.

This is losing poorly. It makes major concessions without getting anything in return, conceding both pieces of flesh and the larger narrative to the other side. This unnecessarily splits those who support the Democrats on whether or not to support these actions. It doesn’t name the opponents of the effort to figure out ways of deploying pressure to change things. Without an obvious fight it’s not signaled that it was a priority. And the ultimate problem is that it doesn’t leave the coalition in better shape for the next battle.

And note that even where Obama is relatively unconstrained by Congress, he’s still gone against many of the progressive promises he made when he was a candidate. On issues of war, transparency, going after whistleblowers, wiretaps, deportations, medical marijuana, whitewashing torture — all issues where Obama can act without a vote from Congress — Obama has consistently shown priorities are well to the right of progressive beliefs, as well as well to the right of his campaign promises.

In order for progressives to cut him much slack when he loses a major negotiation, as happened this week, Obama would have to have earned credibility among progressives. He hasn’t done this. Progressives rightly believe they don’t owe Barack Obama much benefit of the doubt.

See also: Jonathans Bernstein and especially Chait responding to Dickenson, and also Chait on Obama’s three blunders on the Debt Ceiling negotiations.

  1. This is a bit different from some of my earlier thinking. This is because sometimes I change my mind. :-p []
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7 Responses to On The Debt Ceiling Deal, Blaming Obama, And Liberal Credibility (And Obama’s Lack Of It)

  1. 1
    Sharon Cullars says:

    I truly believe at this point that Obama’s problem is shortsightedness. Excluding the health care act (which I believe was prudent as a way to at least put forth a skeleton for other administrations to “flesh out”), Obama’s conciliatory nature seems to be geared to ameliorating the roaring lion on the right so that he may get another term. He is taking his voting blocs (gays, progressives, minorities) for granted in an effort to win over the recalcitrant crybabies on the right. He seemingly doesn’t understand the long-term effect of his immediate capitulations. It would have been so much better for him to have fought like a tiger these four years and lose a second term than to win another term as basically a lame duck president.

  2. 2
    Jake Squid says:

    It would have been so much better for him to have fought like a tiger these four years and lose a second term than to win another term as basically a lame duck president.

    Better for who? Obama clearly doesn’t agree with this assessment. It’s been obvious for a long time that Obama’s number one priority is getting elected to a second term.

  3. 3
    Jeff Fecke says:

    I disagree with much of this, because I think the left underestimates how their weak support of Obama pushes him right.

    To wit: where has the left’s anger been over the past six months? The tea partiers were out in force when Obama took office. They were pushing and protesting and demanding action. Where is the left? Sitting at home, whining about how Obama isn’t perfect, lining up perfect primary challengers (Bernie Sanders! Because what could go wrong with ousting the first Black president in favor of a white guy who isn’t even a Democrat?), and generally not doing much to advance their agenda.

    What this does is push Obama to the middle, because he is a politician, he does want to win re-election (this is not a sin, by the way), and if the left won’t back him strongly, he’s going to need to grab votes in the middle.

    I contrast this with the Republicans and George W. Bush, and the vote on Medicare Part D. This was a vote that was anathema to Republicans on a variety of principles. It would be the equivalent of Obama cutting Social Security by 10 percent because he thought it would win him support. It was a pure re-election pander, and it was disastrous policy, and you know what? The right supported him anyway. He won re-election. So did the GOP Congress. And Bush was able to stay firmly on the right, because his base didn’t desert him over the kind of heresy that any president must occasionally commit while governing (or in Bush’s case, attempting to govern).

    The answer to this whole debacle is simple: double down. You want things to move left? Then do something about it. Get out. Protest. Shout. Yell. Work to get a Democrat elected in your district. If you’re in a safe Democratic district, work to get a more liberal Democrat or a Green or a Socialist elected in your district.

    But I’m sick of people sitting on the sidelines and pretending that it’s up to Obama to win them over. No, folks — it’s up to you to pull Obama back to the left. And if you’re not going to do the work to do that, nobody — not Bernie Sanders, not Russ Feingold, not Hillary Clinton, not the reincarnation of Franklin Delano Roosevelt — will be to your liking.

  4. 4
    Kevin Moore says:

    Jeff, progressives have been rallying and protesting and organizing all along — against assaults on the right to organize, on public employees, on education, on reproductive choice, on family planning, etc — and just recently held hundreds of rallies across the country protesting cuts to Social Security and Medicare, outnumbering Tea Party counterparts in significant numbers. But we don’t hear about it, because it doesn’t fit the Villager narrative. To wit:

    Wednesday’s conservative rally, organized by the Tea Party Express, was a bust: only about fifty people showed up to see presidential candidate Herman Cain and hear Senators Jim DeMint, Rand Paul and Mike Lee speak. “It had all the makings of a big time Tea Party rally,” Politico wrote. But “by the time the senators had spoken there were still fewer than 50 tea partiers in attendance.”

    But then, Thursday’s American Dream rally—organized by MoveOn, Rebuild the Dream, AFSCME and AFGE, and featuring speakers like Van Jones and Representatives Keith Ellison and Jan Schakowsky—clocked in an estimated 450–500 people, according to the coalition. Oddly, though, as of twenty-four hours later, Politico didn’t mention it. CNN.com, meanwhile, talked up the Tea Party rally both the day before it took place and afterward—when it spun the measly crowd (and its own pre-event notice) by writing: “Don’t be fooled by the tiny turnout at the Tea Party rally on Capitol Hill Wednesday. The conservative movement doesn’t much need rallies anymore. November 2010 changed all of that.”

    That’s a handy excuse. And maybe that’s why CNN.com didn’t bother to mention the American Dream rally at all. What could it have said?: “Don’t be fooled by the larger turnout at the progressive rally on Capitol Hill Thursday. The liberal movement desperately needs rallies. November 2010 made it so”?

    Thursday’s rally was built on the progressive coalition’s mass action on Tuesday: 20,000 people protesting the various debt deals at more than 800 Congressional offices across the country. For those smaller rallies, MoveOn’s Justin Ruben told me, “We received a huge amount of local coverage, and very little national coverage.”

    Em-phass-is mine.

    I don’t buy the argument that progressives and other members of the Left should mute their criticisms so Obama feels better about his re-election chances. I’m not saying Obama should cater to all of liberal demands and policy preferences — that’s not realistic — but they should be treated with much more respect, especially when they cohere with reality. The Left “backed him strongly” in 2008. Doesn’t that count for something?

    Beyond that, I don’t think it helps any of us to make this out to be a conflict over relative levels of support for Obama, some kind of “Firebaggers vs. Obamabots” spit-balling. Our government has continued to fail us — us being people, citizens, not just occupants of ideological spots on the political spectrum — for a depressingly long time. Obama is part of that failure, even if his contribution is not as horrible as his political opponents.

  5. 5
    Charles S says:


    That is an incredibly confused comment (no wonder, since you are in an incredibly confused position). Liberals should pull Obama back to the left by cheering him on when he suggests imposing a blended rate on medicaid, when he suggests raising the medicare eligibility age to 67, when he suggests a chained CPI for social security? That makes no sense.

    Liberals have been busy fighting far right activities at the state level in Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan (and Indiana and North Carolina, and in many other states). If we’d been out in the streets in DC fighting against this debt ceiling deal (instead of just ranting about it and writing and calling), you’d be complaining that we were forcing our President to turn to centrists; since we weren’t, that means we’re forcing him right-ward. If we were out cheering him in the streets for turning right-ward, even I’d agree we were helping him turn rightward. So there is absolutely nothing liberals could be doing that would not (in your calculus) be causing the president to turn right-ward (and, indeed, he’s repeatedly made it clear that we don’t count to him).

    Speaking of Bush and medicare part D, I remember how Bush was constantly talking about how he must be doing something right since the Right Wing was upset with him, and also how he repeatedly adopted Left Wing rhetoric (equivalent to the “The government is like a family and needs to tighten its belt in hard times)– oh wait, I don’t, because he didn’t. Medicare part D was also quite popular with the pharmaceutical industry, so it was not exactly a betrayal of all of the Republican base.

    Amp puts forward a pretty straight forward route by which liberal pundits suggested the President could avoid turning rightward, back when it mattered. The president rejected that idea on the basis that the current crisis could never happen. Now, either the President welcomed this opportunity to lose absolutely and piss off a big chunk of his base, or he is a complete sucker. And now he explains that the super-congress committee won’t be a disaster because the Republicans are obviously embarrassed by their current round of over-partisan-ness (you know, the one in which they won completely), so they’ll play nice next time (presumably, that is why they were absolutely opposed to having automatic tax increases along with the automatic spending cuts, because they plan to never ever have to go there– sure.).

    It’s baffling.

    Personally, the president gets nothing from me. I’m going to put my efforts into winning back the House and retaining the Senate. President Bachmann can do a lot of harm to us all, sure, but it is clear that Obama and a Republican House is a total disaster (and a Republican Senate will make it a little worse). There is nothing we can do to stop Obama from rushing ever rightward to surrender to the Republican controlled House, so the only solution is to take the House back from the Republicans.

  6. 6
    Charles S says:

    Actually, I’ll put money behind progressive House candidates and to defend progressive House reps and Senators, but my time is going to go to fighting for marriage equality in Oregon (assuming we have a repeal of inequality on the ballot next year).

  7. 7
    Stepehn Frug says:

    Adding some weight to the “they messed up catastrophically” side of the argument, let me adduce this piece from the American Prospect on five things Obama could have done differently. Two of them (#2 & 3 on the AP’s list) are the same as the three in the TNR piece linked above — but the other three are new, and they are (in my mind) at least as important as those. So check it out: